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Kuhu 【工夫】



Zen 【禅】 and Kaizen 【改善】. English alphabets are similar but two different topics.

Yet, there is a concept that connects the two.


The concept is called “Kuhu【工夫】.”


“Kuhu【工夫】” is a Chinese word that initially represented the worker or the effort and time of work. The first symbol 【工】 represents “making things.” For example, a factory is 【工場】, this symbol plus “Ba.” The second symbol【夫】 represents a husband or a mature human.


Then, Zen【禅】 arrived in China. Zen, seated meditation, is part of Buddhism. A Chinese monk trained in India started practicing by focusing more on Zen than other Buddhist activities. This group of people started using the word “Kuhu【工夫】” in their training.


An important thing to note is that Zen is not one thought. There are multiple groups inside Zen. In fact, in 2019, two groups of Zen in Japan jointly requested the government NOT to describe Zen as one group in textbooks. There are many groups inside the category of Zen, and each has some unique thoughts on “Kuhu【工夫】,” but in general, they are connected with training.


The Zen's use of “Kuhu【工夫】” has a more significant influence on Japanese understanding of the word. We use “Kuhu【工夫】” in daily life outside Zen. In such cases, “Kuhu【工夫】” means to think about the better method or meaning. For example, a child didn’t eat a carrot, so we “Kuhu【工夫】” the food so that he will eat it.


Toyota implemented the “Creative Idea Suggestion System” in the fifties, and the Japanese name for this system is “Soui-Kuhu-Teian.” 【創意工夫提案】. At the same time, many Japanese companies implemented the “Suggestion system.” Those names were the “Kaizen suggestion system.” Eiji Toyoda or Shouichi Saito intentionally selected words that were not typical in Japan. My understanding is that they wanted to keep the nuances of creativity and “Kuhu【工夫】.”


As mentioned before, the English version of Kaizen “ate” the word “Kuhu【工夫】.” This raises a question on what the difference is between “Kuhu【工夫】” and Kaizen. While “Kuhu【工夫】” went through Zen and focused on thinking, Kaizen focuses more on action or acting while thinking (No sitting meditation for sure.). Also, Kaizen has a twin called Kaiaku, which means to change to bad. This means not all “Kuhu【工夫】” provide good results. When the results are poor, we need more “Kuhu【工夫】” to reach Kaizen. Of course, I like the simplicity that today’s meaning of Kaizen includes “Kuhu【工夫】.” But no harm to know about the concept of “Kuhu【工夫】” from Zen.


There is also controversy inside Zen.


As mentioned above, there are multiple Zen groups. Each has a different view of Zen, which is very interesting. Here, I compare only two of them for simplicity.


One group, which the Soto represents, focuses on conducting Zen without anything else. Their motto, 只管打坐 “Shikantaza” means to keep doing Zen. By concentrating on Zen, they cut their greed, and daily activities become training. Or, training is not something special. Here, the master is someone who can lead by example. They call this type of Zen as Silent Illumination. And “Kuhu【工夫】” for this group is to focus on Zen.


Another group, which the Rinzai represents, has the Koan, a question the master asks when conducting the Zen. This Koan is passed from a master to a student. Even if the master has not reached a higher state if the student keeps thinking about the Koan, future generations could achieve a higher state. Note here that these Koans are not test the knowledge of answers. It is the process of discovery. This process is called “Kuhu【工夫】.” Here, “Kuhu【工夫】” means to think about the Koan that the master has challenged you. Also, there is the appropriate Koan for the development levels.


As I try to understand these differences in Zen, a question arises: “Which is the TPS method?”


“Just focus on Kaizen.” This is a phrase I often hear in TPS. The famous episode of Ohno writing the cycle on the floor and asking the student to stand there doesn’t seem to have any Koan to think about. (Or is the cycle itself the Koan?) The suggestion system seems to welcome any ideas for improvement. To some degree, people are focused on Kaizen.


On the other hand, the coach provides daily challenges and questions. The constant questions are: “Is this value-added work or waste?” “How can I improve?” There are many records of words of wisdom or stories from the seniors. By passing on such episodes, future generations can think more about Kaizen.


There are misinterpretations of this comparison. It is not about whether it is for beginners or those at a high level. Focusing on Kaizen is a good starting point for beginners, as opposed to being introduced to many words and concepts. Those who never got a chance to improve will explode with ideas if given a chance. Also, you will never reach a higher level of understanding unless you implement more Kaizen. On the other hand, there are examples of people who only say “Do Kaizen” and never lead by example.


Also, coaching on kaizen helps beginners. Many have this mindset that we can’t improve or they can do nothing. The coach needs to destroy such bias. And, to reach a higher level, questions from coaches do help. There are so many questions that opened my eyes. Without those questions, I would be stuck in a maze. At the same time, some dependent people never do Kaizen without a coach (or a boss).


In the end, there are no answers. I am not a noble Zen monk but a regular person who tries and errors. Just like Zen, when you see things from the outside, they might look like one. But inside, there are many thoughts. Knowing the different thoughts helps imagine different approaches, providing new trial ideas. I thank Zen for giving me exciting ideas.

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